Duluth in '68: A look back at ‘The Year that Changed the World’By all accounts, 1968 was a turbulent year in American history. Duluth, perched on the shores of Lake Superior, was not unaffected by the dramatic events of the day.
By: Patra Sevastiades, Budgeteer News
So begins an article that ran in the Jan. 1, 1968, edition of the Duluth News Tribune: “A plane carrying four Duluth passengers, a pilot and copilot to Duluth from Green Bay made a safe emergency landing on Highway 118 just south of [Ashland] about 9 p.m. Sunday.”
The passengers — businessman Erwin Goldfine, sports announcer Marsh Nelson and Goldfine’s sons, Steven and John — were well-known members of the Duluth community. It was an astonishing event: the engine of the plane had shut down in midair in the dark Wisconsin night. A woman on the ground saw the lights of the disabled plane and didn’t hear any engine noise, so she knew they were in trouble.
“She and another person jumped in a car and, with a flashlight, guided us to a road that was large enough for us to land on,” John Goldfine recalled. With the helped of these good Samaritans, they landed safely.
It was a fitting opening to a year that left many Americans wondering just where the country was going, and if all would be well. By all accounts, 1968 was a turbulent year in American history. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy stunned a nation already divided over American participation in the Vietnam War. The violence between police and anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention was unprecedented — and caught on film. Riots over racial injustice left sections of many American cities burned and their inhabitants bitter. Duluth, perched on the shores of Lake Superior, was not unaffected by the dramatic events of the day. But it is fair to say that its distance from a major metropolis and its demographic profile did blunt the impact of most of these developments.
The Vietnam War was on everyone’s mind, and no wonder: the number of American service members in Vietnam had risen steeply, from 23,000 at the end of 1964 to 477,000 by the beginning of 1968.
Local public opinion over the war was divided and complicated. At the University of Minnesota Duluth, a group of four students — sophomore Dale A. Wolf and freshmen Carlotta Colette, Dennis Erickson and Gary G. Moland — politely confronted Richard Griffin, a representative from Dow Chemical Company who was recruiting on campuses that year. The group, Students for Discussion of Alternatives, stated that they were “opposed to the use of napalm to kill people in Vietnam” and then asked Griffin to explain how Dow could justify production of napalm “to kill people in Vietnam.” Griffin responded with a prepared statement, saying that the company intended to “produce napalm and other materials as long as they are needed by our government.” Sharon Stauffer, the News Tribune staff writer at the scene, wryly noted in her front-page article that the student group’s meeting with Griffin “attracted little attention, aside from the presence of news photographers and reporters.”
And in 1968, the subject of the annual meeting of Duluth’s Minnesota Civil Liberties Union affiliate was “Draft and Dissent.” The purpose of the panel discussion was to “explain the legality of dissent, including rights and duties under the Selective Service Law, and to explain the rights of the dissenter and the alternatives [available to dissenters].”
But Dennis Hughes, who graduated from East High School in 1968, recalled “low-riding” with friends along London Road and having a fascination with the Vietnam War. He followed it with interest.
It made a deep impression on 18-year-old Hughes when, in late January of that year, “the Tet Offensive took the United States by surprise” — because the Communist North’s attacks were well-coordinated and struck many targets. But the U.S. responded well, he said.
Of the year 1968 he simply said, “It was a simpler time.”
Then on April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. A shockwave of disbelief and anger rippled throughout the nation. Rioting erupted in major cities.
It was quiet in Duluth. One day after the assassination, a Friday, King was commemorated at two services in the Twin Ports, one at UMD and one at Superior State University (now the University of Wisconsin-Superior). Then-Duluth Mayor Ben Boo spoke eloquently of King: “There are but a few men in the entire United States whose death could so dramatically affect every citizen of this country,” he said. “Duluth citizens are stunned and dismayed.”
Boo also appealed for unity.
“However, Dr. King’s appalling death does not have to be in vain,” he continued. “The shock of this event should be the key to cement our communities together again for a common good and a common goal.”
Five fires were set in the late hours of April 5 and the early hours of April 6, and were identified by investigators as arson. Three were to vacant houses in the West End, all within a dozen blocks of each other. Another was to a three-apartment building on Piedmont Avenue. One was to a storage building on 11th Avenue East. Firefighters responded quickly. Two other suspicious fires also occurred that Sunday, at local businesses. One of the blazes was at Mr. Pete’s, 125 W. Superior St.
Chris Manolis, son of owner Peter Manolis, recalled that fateful morning: “Fran Alfonsi, our bartender, had stopped by to check on something early that morning,” he said, “and he smelled smoke.”
Fortunately, the damage was limited mostly to a wooden door and door frame. Was Chris’ father concerned about the rash of arsons overnight?
“No, it just seemed like some guys were out on a spree,” Chris recalled. He does not remember anyone expressing concern that Duluth was on the verge of danger. Also that Sunday, hundreds of marchers gathered at Calvary Baptist Church and made their way through downtown, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The march led to the Arena-Auditorium (now the DECC), where a service was held in King’s memory. Approximately 1,500 people attended.
To the city’s credit, Mayor Boo attended King’s funeral in Atlanta later that week.
Two months later, in June, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was also felled, in Los Angeles, echoing the assassination of his brother only five years earlier. Dennis Hughes recalls that a few of his classmates, overcome by the assassinations of King and Kennedy, left East before the school year was done and fled to the solitude of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Hughes himself decided to enlist in the Army. He went to Vietnam in 1969, as a medic — and he, like the Goldfines, managed to come back safely to Duluth.
Mass media observations
At the same time that the nation wrestled with thorny issues of war, race, equal rights and urban decline, television sitcoms projected the reassuring image of a safe, urban, or newly suburban, white America. “Bewitched” humorously explored life in suburbia by making the stay-at-home wife and mother a “good” witch. Despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of finesse, the Clampett family on “The Beverly Hillbillies” and their goodheartedness always won out over the oily refinement of their pinstriped banker, Milburn Drysdale.
And “That Girl,” a sitcom starring Marlo Thomas, was early proof that a young woman could make her own way in “the big city” — still a novel idea in 1968.
Other circa-’68 historical nuggets
• It is not too much to note that the new Arena-Auditorium (finished before 1968) changed Duluth, making it a regional magnet for significant events. Celebrities such as Bill Cosby appeared there. So, too, did political figures. • In the fall of 1968, presidential candidate George Wallace spoke in Duluth, as did the wives of the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates, Muriel Humphrey and Jane Muskie. Vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, too, made a stop in Duluth, appearing at Paulucci Hall. • King Olav of Norway visited in May 1968. He came to celebrate the opening of a new Scandinavian studies program at UWS, and he made an appearance at the Arena-Auditorium.
• In September 1968, the Arena-Auditorium served as the venue for the Great Lakes Regional Tribal Leaders Conference convention. American Indian leaders from around the nation gathered in Duluth for the three-day meeting.
This is Patra Sevastiades’ first piece for the Budgeteer. She loves language and can be reached via email@example.com.